For the past 16 years I have lived in a college town that probably never intended to be a college town.
Home to The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) since 1935, Ewing is situated almost in the center between Princeton and Trenton. Between TCNJ and Rider University, located in nearby Lawrenceville, there are 11,000 undergraduates literally in my backyard.
TCNJ, formerly known as Trenton State College, was more of a commuter school, mainly a teacher’s college when I was growing up. Today, it’s a competitive public alternative to mid-sized schools such as Lehigh or Villanova that offers bachelors degrees in liberal arts, business, engineering, multimedia and nursing. It graduates three-quarters of its freshmen within four years, about the same as Lehigh, and costs a lot less. It also has one of the best athletic programs, and some of the best outdoor sports facilities in NCAA Division III.
Rider was founded as a business college, and grew to offer degrees in the liberal arts, communications and education. Many accountants, executives, school administrators and teachers around this region have earned their bachelors and/or masters degrees from Rider. Unlike TCNJ, Rider is private, and offers athletic scholarships. While most of Rider’s sports opponents are private colleges that are about the same size or smaller, it’s wresting program will soon join the Mid America Conference and compete against much larger schools in the East and Midwest.
Until TCNJ opened Campus Town nearly four years ago, few would have considered Ewing and Lawrenceville to be a college town. There were no sports bars, music clubs eating places or shops within easy walking distance of either campus. I see Rider students at one of my favorite local pizza places, but there’s no way they could get there without a ride. Downtown Lawrenceville has good bagels, Starbucks, pizza, ice cream and two nice casual dining places. But they get more business from the students at Lawrenceville Prep, the boarding high school across the street ,than they ever have from Rider or TCNJ. The Rider students would have to bike or walk on a bridge over an interstate to get there without a car.
It’s hard to tell how successful Campus Town has been for business. There are still vacant spaces to be filled in Campus Town that do not have a ‘Coming Soon’ sign in the front window. The campus bookstore, a very nice Barnes and Noble, does well. So does the Panera, which opened late to feed TCNJ students free bagels and pastries during finals this past semester. The thin crust pizza at Piccola is good, but it gets pricy when you add on the toppings. The Landmark Americana Tap and Grill opened to fanfare last October. The next month, TCNJ’s campus paper reported on racial bias at the sports bar and restaurant. A month later, a TCNJ student was killed in an auto accident by a drunk driver leaving the place. Now the place will not serve alcohol after 11 PM on the weekends. It also stopped selling “fishbowls,” concoctions of mixed drinks, pitchers and buckets of beer, and other drink specials college students in other college towns like to drink. Some might say “no loss.” But sports bars survive in larger college towns by selling these concoctions to students. It’s how they compete for their business.
Rider and TCNJ house more than half of their students on campus. The campuses are fairly easy to patrol and secure. It’s easy to park at either school, if you get to campus at the right time. But the growth of both schools has also spurred demand for off-campus housing. Not everyone wants to live under the supervision of a university for four years, and you will find students who want to stick around during the summer to work or take classes.
There are a lot of apartments in Ewing and Lawrenceville. This area has always been a bedroom community to Princeton, Trenton and Philadelphia. But if you want to walk to classes at Rider or TCNJ, you rent a house with a group of your friends. Those houses are becoming a good investment, but unpopular with the neighbors. As a resident I can’t blame homeowners for being upset. Instead of a family living next door or across the street, they have to deal with as many as ten students who might have as many as ten cars. If they have lived and worked around Ewing for years, hoping to sell their homes and move into a comfortable retirement, that dream has been quashed, unless their home can be converted into a rental property.
I don’t believe that the people who have lived in Ewing or Lawrenceville over the past two decades expected the life of their town to change around the decisions of a college. In some ways it has changed for the better. The region needs to develop a young workforce to carry its economy forward and spend money while they’re here. TCNJ and Rider certainly help. But a college town succeeds when students and residents successfully coexist. They cooperate and support each other after getting through the growing pains.
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